Meet the woman drumming up resistance against mining companies and future typhoons in the Philippines

| 1st December 2017
Activist and former Philippine environment secretary Gina Lopez has been awarded the 2017 Seacology Prize

Activist and former Philippine environment secretary Gina Lopez has been awarded the 2017 Seacology Prize (c) Seacology

SOPHIE MORLIN-YRON talks to activist and former Philippine environment secretary Gina Lopez about banning open-pit mines, battling climate change and winning the 2017 Seacology Prize

Putting these open pits in a place a beautiful as the Philippines is disgustingly horrible. If you have any sense of aesthetics, how can you do that!

Comprising some 7,000 islands in the tropical Western Pacific, the Philippines prides itself as one of the most biodiverse places on earth. Among the archipelago’s many endemic species are several flying frogs, the Philippine mouse deer and the endangered Philippine eagle, also called the monkey-eating eagle.

Its atolls and turquoise waters hide natural treasures too. For example, the spectacular Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park, a World Heritage Site, is 130,028 hectares of beautiful lagoons and coral islands where rare birds and marine turtles come to nest. 

“We are a country of beautiful volcanoes, mountains, rivers, and corals. It's absolutely spectacular,” says Regina 'Gina' Lopez, who was the winner of the 2017 Seacology Prize in recognition of her environmental advocacy, which among many other things has led to a ban on open-pit mining. 

Radical activist

“Putting these open pits in a place a beautiful as the Philippines is disgustingly horrible. If you have any sense of aesthetics, how can you do that! And when you learn that there are communities there whose lives have been disadvantaged, your heart breaks,” Lopez said.

The $10,000 prize is awarded each year by Seacology, a California-based conservation organisation, to someone who has shown exceptional achievement in preserving island environments and culture.

Lopez surely has - the 63-year old activist has been an outspoken champion of social and environmental causes in the Philippines for fifteen years. Her work will now be celebrated at a prize ceremony on 5 December in the Philippine capital Manila, which is also her hometown. 

Her efforts as chair of the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission led to the cleanup of at least 17 tributaries in the badly polluted Pasig river and nearby urban streams. She also led the Save Palawan Island movement and lobbied against the environmental ravages of mining, especially heavily polluting open-pit nickel mines.

Despite her history as a radical activist, she was appointed Secretary of the Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) by President Rodrigo Duterte in June 2016.

Turn acidic

She established the first ever forum for consultations between the DENR and indigenous populations and shut down illegal fish pens in the country’s largest lake. She also made the bold decision to issue a ban on all new open-pit mining projects.

The decision directly affects three planned major mining ventures worth a combined $8.9 billion. Mining is big business in the Philippines, which is the world's top producer of nickel ore and the main exporter to China. 

These mines are wreaking havoc on the island ecosystems and have a terrible effect on the local communities, she explains while excitedly showing pictures of the mines. “See that? That's fifty storeys deep. That disadvantages 1,200 hectares of farmland!”

The shape of upside-down cones, the mines resemble large man-made sinkholes, collecting water and becoming toxic over time unless managed correctly, she explains. “And all of these open pit mines are near rivers and streams. All of them. They are going to be there for all eternity.

“They will have to be detoxified on a regular basis, otherwise they will turn acidic. And all of these open pits will be a financial liability to government for life.” 

Uphill battle

Travelling from village to village, she took it upon herself to document how mines destroy the environment, gathering evidence as she went. She also shared it with her 500,000 followers on Facebook, naturally.

“I would go around with the media and take footage myself. People were shocked at the pictures,” she says. “There are just a few businesspeople that control politicians. That's how it is.” 

The villagers living near mines are at risk of being poisoned. Mercury poisoning linked to an open-pit mine near the city of Puerto Princesa, Palawan, has already been detected, as revealed by a recent study by the Department of Health.

Exposure to even small amounts of mercury can cause kidney failure and neurological and behavioral disorders, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Taking on mining has been an uphill battle which arguably cost her the job in government. As she herself puts it “you are stepping on very big business toes.”

Indian ashrams

In May 2017, Lopez was voted out of office by the members of a congressional commission on appointments — some of whom had ties to the powerful mining sector. Her successor, Roy Cimatu, was officially appointed earlier this month and has expressed that he is favour of allowing mining to continue.

The government's review of open-pit mining has been passed to the Mining Industry Coordinating Council (MICC), headed by a lawyer who used to work for a mining company and chaired by the Secretary of Finance who previously was the President of a mining company according to Seacology. "The resources of one land are destroyed for the business interests of a few… it is social injustice," Lopez says. 

Lopez is now back to campaigning. Brought up in a wealthy family that owns the nation’s largest media conglomerate, she’s long worked as the head of its philanthropic arm, the ABS-CBN Foundation.

She has a diverse background and is the first to point out that she is privileged. “I have lived a very sheltered life,” she says. 

In an earlier life, she tried everything from Indian ashrams and teaching yoga to building orphanages in Africa, where she lived for eleven years as a yoga missionary in her twenties. This was also where she met her now ex-husband with whom she has two sons.

Eco-tourism

Always a spiritual person, she takes first opportunity to talk about community spirit and love. She remains a keen yogi and uses meditation to understand the suffering of others and connect with the environment. “You feel more. You can feel the pain of others. You can feel the destruction of the environment,” she says, outlining the benefits of mindfulness. 

This includes acknowledging the critical need for resistance to climate change, she says, which is already “staring us in the face.” She adds: “There's nothing we can do about it. The typhoons are going to come. The storm surges are going to come,” she says, adding that protecting the mangrove and bamboo ecosystems is crucial to preparing for flooding and typhoons in the future. 

She fires off ideas at the pace of a much younger woman on a mission and has great plans for the coming years. All the yoga must be paying off. Now back to life as a campaigner, she wants to help build a new economic system and help stimulate the local island economies, so that people don’t have to move to the cities for work.

“Unless we develop our island ecosystems, people will continue to flock to Manila, which is really sad.” 

Working together

Through her new organisation I LOVE (Investments in Loving Organizations for Village Economies), she will work to lift Filipinos out of poverty by building green businesses such as eco-tourism at grassroots level, she says. 

”If we can just nurture and protect what we have, I really feel we can get our country out of poverty… I even think it's a viable strategy for addressing drug problems.”

Next up for Lopez is to get back on the road and host a television programme starting this December. The plan is to show people what community transformation in action can look like. “I want to give hope by showing people working together…  I want to prove that economies based on a genuine empathy and concern for the other is actually very good for economic flow, peace and order.” 

She concludes: “I'm very determined to make that happen.” 

This Author

Sophie Morlin-Yron is a freelance writer based in Stockholm and London. She writes about the environment, tech and innovation, and tweets @sophiemy.

Seacology is a nonprofit conservation organisation that works to preserve the habitats and cultures of islands around the world. It has 280 projects in 59 countries. Many islanders are forced to choose between protecting their natural resources and pursuing economic development. For more about the Seacology Prize visit the website